Education reform bill, praised as good step, clears legislature

Legislators agree: The education reform bill they unanimously approved Tuesday is a step, one of several that will be needed to provide a better education for the lowest-performing students.

“It’s a step. I wouldn’t call it monumental,” said Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, the leader of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus. “I won’t celebrate finally getting our act together after we were nationally embarrassed” for having the largest achievement gap between minority students and their peers.

The education reform bill that passed through the House and Senate over the past two days, and was greeted by cheers late Tuesday night, largely focused on improving the teaching profession and state intervention in the lowest-performing schools.

holder winfield

Rep. Gary Holder-Winfied of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus.

“It’s what we should have been doing long ago,” said Republican Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., of Norwalk.

“We wasted so much time focusing our time and energy on getting rid of a few bad teachers,” said Mary Loftus Levine, the leader of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union. “We could have done so much more.”

That’s not to say legislators weren’t happy with the changes required in the bill; many said that these changes significantly move the state forward.

“This will help us begin to turn around our schools,” said Rep. Andy Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, co-chairman of the Education Committee, at one point during the nearly seven-hour celebration of the bill before it was approved.

But work remains. Legislators in both the House and Senate presented a list of steps the state must still take in the coming years to improve education for those students who need it the most: black and students with limited English skills.

“There is more to be done,” said Democratic Rep. Susan M. Johnson, the co-chairwoman of the state’s English Language Learners Task Force. Her district of Windham is one of the lowest-achieving districts and has a student population where one of every four students speaks limited English.

“I was trying to figure out why we are so low performing and I quickly found out,” she said. She found that many of these limited English students were being routed to special education classes simply because they don’t yet read the language. And once in special education, the teachers often aren’t qualified to teach this population, Johnson said.

The state has for years had a hard time finding teachers qualified to teach these students, reports the State Department of Education. The budget bill provides $100,000 for districts to provide scholarships for 20 teachers who would work with these students.

“We are going to need a lot more than that,” Johnson said.

Additionally, a recent report by Connecticut Voices for Children, a policy advocacy group, shows that districts statewide are shunting too many students into special education. Once in these programs, the students don’t have to take standardized tests, and so the district is relieved from facing repercussions if too many fail.

“They are in special education because they didn’t learn to read. Those resources need to be used on kids who really are special education,” said Elaine Zimmerman, the executive director of the Commission on Children who helped shape the reading components in the bill.

The bill will require the State Department of Education to monitor and identify when too many students are being sent to special education.

Other than this initiative, changes to special education — and the skyrocketing costs municipal officials have been complaining about for years — were largely left for another year.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who grew up with learning disabilities, has acknowledged that he decided not tackle special education reform this year.

“This is not a special education bill,” he told the parent of a deaf child during his Waterbury town hall meeting selling his other reforms. He said he intends to address that issue in the very near future.

Minorities in low-performing schools, and the achievement gap

New Haven Public Schools serves a student population where almost every student is black or Hispanic and fewer than half of them can read by Grade 5.

Holder-Winfield, who has lived for years in New Haven, is sick of this reality.

“I’m talking about a lot of children who cannot read. Our reforms need to start with the kids, not the teachers,” he said.

fleischmann fields questions

Rep. Andy Fleischmann, the Education Committee co-chair, fields questions from Rep. Marilyn Giuliano, the Republican ranking member. Both voted for the bill.

The bill does include a pilot program for five elementary schools to begin assessing students annually in reading, and providing intense tutoring when needed, a plan with a $2.7 million price tag. The bill also requires that new elementary teachers pass a reading instruction test.

And while there was wide agreement in both chambers that the state needs to do more to improve reading for minority students, Holder-Winfield told his colleagues before the vote that he is “disappointed” that reading instruction coupled with intensive intervention plans was limited to five schools. He said the cost of a statewide rollout immediately turned off legislators.

Fleischmann, the education co-chairman, said there is a direct link between those who cannot read and those who end up in prison.

“This bill starts to address that,” he said, adding this bill “is more than a nice step… It is a giant step that is long overdue.”

What the bill does:

  • Adds an additional 1,000 preschool seats in high-quality state programs. Last school year, 6,400 students — or 16 percent — showed up to kindergarten having spent no time in a preschool. Half were from the state’s 19 poorest districts, reports the State Department of Education. Connecticut spent about $85 million for state-funded preschool programs in 2011, reaching 10 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds. This bill will boost spending by $6.8 million a year.
  • Schools will be graded on a five-tier scale based on standardized test scores. The lowest-performing districts will be overseen by the education department, and a new superintendent or “special master” could be selected by the commissioner. The commissioner can also require that schools in these districts provide preschool, summer school, extended school hours or professional development. An additional $39.5 million is available for low-performing districts that make certain reforms.
  • The controversial changes Malloy had proposed to existing union contracts in the worst-off schools were largely stripped from the bill. He had wanted to bypass legal challenges when teachers contested certain changes at the school. He also wanted to allow for the option, when turning around a school, to have every teacher reapply for their job and only retain the best teachers. The new bill reads: “Nothing in this section shall alter the collective bargaining agreements… [The state] shall negotiate with respect to salaries, hours and other conditions of employment of such turnaround plans.” A “turnaround committee” — half appointed by the teachers’ union and the other half by school officials — will develop changes. If the panel cannot reach an agreement, or the commissioner does not deem the plan significant enough, the commissioner “in consultation with teachers” will develop a plan.
  • An annual reading assessment will be developed by Jan. 1 for students in kindergarten through Grade 3. The Black and Puerto Rican Caucus had proposed that students who could not read be held back in Grade 3 until they could. That did not make it into the final bill because of cost concerns. The bill also requires elementary teachers to take a reading instruction exam whose results will be reported to the state. “Our kids are not reading… This will fix that,” said Sen. Toni Harp, Democratic co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee who helped write the bill. In her hometown of New Haven, only half of the third grade students were proficient in reading last year. By Grade 8 only 67 percent were proficient.
  • The proposal to have teachers receive numerous “exemplary” or “proficient” evaluations to earn and keep their tenure was also scaled back. The deal outlined Monday night requires that they be graded as “effective” to earn tenure, and they will have to be graded as “ineffective” to lose tenure. There is no link between certification, pay and the evaluations.
  • In a requirement to go into effect in three years, those in teacher preparation programs will have to spend four semesters in a classroom. The current requirement is one semester.
  • Funding for charter schools will increase to $10,500 per student in the coming school year, increasing to $11,500 by 2013-14. Funding for new charter schools was largely stripped from the budget deal, but when new charters do open over the next three years, two must be dedicated to enrolling more English-language learning students.

The bill now heads to the governor, who will sign it.

The bill received bipartisan support in both the House and Senate. After a nearly seven-hour debate, the House unanimously voted to approve the bill.

House Majority Leader J. Brendan Sharkey said bringing so many groups together to support the bill “allowed us to celebrate this bill tonight” but added that work remains on implementing the changes.

Leaders of the state’s two teachers’ unions said this bill will do a lot to close the state’s achievement gap. Sharon Palmer, president of the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said, “This is a huge step in the right direction. It’s only the beginning because there’s so much work to do.”

Loftus Levine, the leader of the Connecticut Education Association, said, “This begins to make a huge dent in the gap … It’s a major shift.”

New Haven Mayor John DeStefano, whose district for years has been one of the lowest-performing districts in the state said, “This is an important step. It reforms education in a thoughtful way… It moves us forward.”

Malloy, who led the charge for education reform, released a statement minutes after the vote.

“We all know that we can’t keep doing what we’ve done for more than twenty years when it comes to public education. Our kids can’t afford it, and quite frankly, neither can our state. I believe education reform is the civil rights issue of our time, and once I sign this bill, the table will be set for real and fundamental reform of our public schools,” he said.

“This session, my priority was reforming public education, and working together we’ve taken real steps toward that goal. Now, it’s time to get to work.”